On the theme of paying attention…
One of the first meditation techniques I learned was tonglen, a buddhist practice of giving and receiving compassion. One of my favorite buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, describes tonglen this way:
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.
This traditional practice involves breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion. As you inhale, you imagine that you are inhaling suffering — it can be your own suffering, the suffering of someone you know, or the suffering of the world. You take it in and then exhale imagining compassion and well-being emanating from your breath, the suffering having been transformed.
In his book, Just One Thing, Rick Hanson explains that practicing compassion helps strengthen those neural pathways, making them more accessible and automatic when you need them. Moreover, practicing receiving compassion primes you to give it, and vice versa.
This week’s video meditation plays with Hanson’s prescription for practicing compassion. Do it for yourself. Give it a try!
Janelle Renee Matous is the exclusive photographer for all my yoga portraits. I trust her completely to make me look beautiful and strong. Janelle is moving to San Antonio this month! Tell her I referred you and get a 10% discount. She is wonderful!
Kori Jones is the brilliant yogini and artist behind Irok Gems. Kori specializes in restorative yoga and has applied her gifts to the military veterans and to the widowed spouses through the American Widow Project. I own four of her pieces, two malas and two bracelets. I love wearing them and knowing I am supporting her.
Last month I introduced a feature called “Practice,” in which I will share with you video documentation of my own practice on a particular pose. For July, I chose Urdva Danurasana, or full wheel pose. I used to do backbends a lot more than I do now. Somewhere along the way they started hurting my shoulder, so I have sort of avoided them. But I miss the exhilaration of a big heart-opening backbend. Backbends make your heart beat and give you an adrenaline rush. So as I worked on this pose, I focused on the shoulders. My goal was to strengthen the top part of the back bend, get the arm bones plugged into the shoulder sockets so they are protected and then open the upper back so that my arms would be vertical in the “final” posture. When you can get your shoulders aligned straight up over your hands, and your knees aligned over your feet, you are ready to try to stand up! After a month of practice, I did it! Many thanks to MBS Yoga for allowing me to use their beautiful space!
When I was in Guatemala on retreat, every morning on my way to get coffee in the dining room I saw this tiny hole (it’s about the size of a quarter) surrounded by bits and pieces of leaves. As people started moving around, the leaves would be scattered or swept away. I never saw the leaves going into the hole or being pushed out or arranged outside it, but it happened every day I was there. One afternoon, I saw a little ant carrying a piece of leaf in the direction of the hole. He had a long way to go. And I wondered how many of them there were. I only ever saw that one.
Also on this trip I was lucky to have the opportunity to consult with a Mayan healer. While we were talking, an ant crawled on my hand. I moved my hand so the ant would crawl off and back onto the table. The healer told me that when an ant comes to visit, it is telling you to get to work!
In context of all I’m doing right now, and all I’m thinking about, it made sense to me! I’m glad I noticed the little ants making their welcome mat around the hole. It made the healer’s message more poignant.
What did you pay attention to this month?
Last month, the phenomenal writer Sherman Alexie published a memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, about his life with and complicated grief over the loss of his mother. I heard him interviewed on Morning Edition on my way to teach 6 am yoga (I almost couldn’t get out of the car), then later on Fresh Air. His voice trembled and he broke tears both times. His struggle to make sense of her death felt so familiar. Yesterday, he published a letter explaining that he had to take a break from the book tour because he was reliving the pain of her loss night after night after night, in public.
He closes his letter with this:
So here I am—the son and the mother combined—who needs to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private. My memoir is still out there for you to read. And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.
The son and the mother combined.
I have been working on my own memoir, the story of losing my mother. It’s interesting to me that Alexie feels he has finally internalized her now that she’s gone. For me, the grieving has been a process of separation, of extracting myself, my dreams, my desires from the confusing slush that was our complicated, entwined, life before… taking the me out of the us that I knew of as “me.”
Writing a memoir, especially about grieving, is a hard process of exploring the myths and realities of your own life, and sometimes re-categorizing them. You learn things about what you thought was true that move those experiences to the myth category. And you learn the deeper truth underneath the stories you used to tell. It’s an exercise in resistance, too… overcoming the resistance to face those things. For the past few months, I have not overcome that resistance. But things keep cycling back around… such as birthdays, mine and then hers.
So, this week while I’m on retreat, I shall return to my book. Dig back into the muck that was us, and see what kind of shiny me I can find in there.
A REALLY good reason to do yoga…
About two weeks ago, my significant other captured a tiny, mostly feral kitten and brought it home to me. The little gray boy has a very sweet disposition, but he has absolutely no interest in me, or people in general. I can pet him and pick him up, but he doesn’t cuddle or even really look directly at me. When I approach, I watch his eyes and see not a hint of recognition. I’m just a big grabbing blob to him.
On the other hand, he bonded immediately with my big boy, Chucky. Even before I got the all clear to let him out of the kennel with the other animals, he and Chucky were nuzzling through the wires of the cage. Little boy recognized something in Chucky, recognized his own kind. And for the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure to watch them cuddle and play constantly.
When we say “Namaste” at the end of class, we are offering a similar kind of recognition to each other. Saying “Namaste” is an acknowledgment of our shared divinity, by which I mean the sweet core of sentience and possibility and vulnerability and perfect imperfection that we all share underneath the layers of socialization and cultural and psychological experiences that make us unique. And we honor that, too. We honor the whole package.
This is one thing that makes the experience of a yoga class different from other forms of exercise. It’s not magic. It’s not religion. However, the asana practice does provide access to this kind of awareness, an essence of shared experience that the mystical traditions of every major religion seek out and celebrate. Now, if that’s not something you want to dwell on, that’s ok, too. Your yoga class is exercise that makes you feel good. It’s that feeling that matters. Yoga is a tool for accessing the full potential of the human body, which includes the hormones that create the physical sensations of calm, excitement, and joy. The asana practice is simply an entry point to an experience of wholeness that we all seek.
I guess this article is supposed to be inspirational: The “Chief Evangelist” of Brand Marketing at Google suggests that if you feel like you’re too busy to do yoga or meditate, commit to just one minute.
I want to argue, though, that if you feel like you’re too busy for yoga, you ARE TOO BUSY.
Yoga is—in part—about finding balance. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teach the values of sukha and sthira: strength and action together with ease. The asana practice gives your body the chance to experience what your mind and heart are seeking. Balance.
If your body is telling you you are too busy for yoga, you probably are. Our culture values GOING and EARNING and COMPETING and CONSUMING. Where is the ease? Use that moment to ask yourself, “what matters?” Is one minute with your child or your partner enough?
Widgets can wait. Yoga can bring balance to your life, but only if you commit to balance, not “yoga.”
Give it a try.
I’m still looking for the right words to describe how seeing this blog post in my inbox—and then READING—it made me feel, so bear with me. I just want to get this OUT… imperfect as it is.
I’ve been wondering what to do with “my yoga.” I’m teaching and I love that. But I’ve hesitated to promote my vision and “put myself out there.” Partly it’s because I’m uncomfortable with what I see being promoted as yoga, and HOW yoga is being promoted. I haven’t wanted to contribute to that. And, I’ve wondered if I’ve carved out too narrow a niche for myself. Two years ago I thought that teaching yoga to advocates and activists and building community in that way would be one way I contributed to the social justice movement (see the home page!). But the more I tried (or thought about trying) to make a “business” out of it, the more insincere it felt, and the more discouraged I got.
I’m turned off by the VAST majority of yoga marketing I see. Yoga to sell beer. Yoga as part of the happy hour party routine. Woo hoo! Yoga!!!! It all seems so shallow. Within the context of a real need for real action on many fronts—gentrification dislocating poor people and old people from their homes, the Black Lives Matters movement, real discussions of anti-capitalist alternatives, important local and national elections—pushing yoga has actually just seemed like a distraction.
Ok. AND… I must admit I’m still a little gun shy after being chewed up and spit out after my last real professional effort at advocacy and civic engagement. But I’ve been watching important movements from the sidelines and justifying it as a white woman feminist stepping aside, trying to be an ally instead of the star.
Last week, a teacher I respect very much took the leap to bring the Black Lives Matter movement into the yoga community. She is encouraging study, discussion and action within this — let’s face it — even-in-San-Antonio, predominantly white community.
I have been involved in New Age circles since I was eighteen years old. I can not tell you the number of World Peace prayers, mantras, visualizations and ceremonies in which I have participated. I have listened to countless charismatic teachers talk about “ushering in a new paradigm” and being part of an “evolution in consciousness” and so on. Gathered in small and large groups, armed with mala beads and good intentions, I have felt inspired, uplifted and buoyed by the notion that I was part of a larger process of awakening.
Of course, I don’t have to tell most of you that 99.9% of the people in those rituals and gatherings were white. And perhaps I don’t have to tell you that my own relationship to said “new paradigm” and said “consciousness evolution” was somewhat vague and, if I am honest, largely centered on my own current and future well-being. I am not saying that I am a total asshole or that I am completely self-centered. I needed to dive into the sources of my personal suffering and to get a handle on my own inner workings. I needed to invoke a positive future for myself. In fact, my life depended on it. Up to a point, personal work on self is essential. After a point, working only on self may have some serious downsides.
One of those serious downsides for me is that I was living in ignorance of larger social issues and failing to see that my ignorance kept me unconsciously participating in an unjust system of institutionalized racism that feeds on fear, blame and inequity– the very things I was praying would come to an end. By being focused on the ways my personal consciousness was patterned from childhood conditioning, I missed the obvious– the ways the culture in which I was brought up created patterns that kept me blind to racism, hatred and various forms of de-humanizing cultural norms.
In short, there’s a LOT of shit between your small or capital S self and the “universe.” And it all needs changing. In the hard work of yoga, we (can) learn that reality is something we create and agree to. Unfortunately, often we agree to a lot unconsciously. In this case, systems of power that benefit some over others. It’s not personal! But we have a personal responsibility to do something about it. Something real that includes breaking the unconscious agreement NOT to be part of the solution.
I’m going to participate in this webinar today, and join the discussion. I hope you will, too.